Dark Ages Slavery

by Pete Jennings

Late Roman period

The slave keeping Romans had to contend with Saxon pirates raiding England and taking away goods and slaves. Saint Patrick, a Romano-Briton was said to have been taken to Ireland for six years in that way before escaping back to England. Those Saxons became the next wave of settlers, in conflict with the Britons remaining after the Romans had left.

Anglo Saxon Slavery

It may be an uncomfortable fact, but Anglo Saxons and the Viking races thought that slavery was a normal part of their working economy. It has been estimated from entries in the Doomsday Book that as much as 10% of the population of Anglo Saxon England were slaves, although this is difficult to verify, as one has to make an estimate of the size of slave families from the actual working slaves listed. The term þ eowen denoted female slave, and þeowincel a little or young slave. The general Old English term for a slave was wealh, which is associated with the ideas of 'Welsh' or 'foreigner.' That gives a clue to one of the major sources of slaves: prisoners of war.

To give some examples: Earl Godwin enslaved followers of Alfred the Aethling in 1036, Earl Harold took slaves in his raid on the West Country in 1052 and Earl Morcar took hundreds of slaves in Northamptonshire in 1065. In the late 12th century King David of Scotland captured so many slaves on a raid into England that it was said that every Scottish household had one.

William of Malmesbury describes young men and women bound with ropes at the port of Bristol, and other centres of slave trade included Carbridge in the North. Slaves are sometimes described as being in chains. Whilst a metal neck collar was sometimes used to denote that someone was a slave, it seems that generally that they were only kept in chains as punishment. One badge of a free born person was to wear a knife, so this was forbidden to slaves. However, trusted slaves must have been allowed to use a knife to do some types of work.

Slaves may have worked at ploughing, building walls, spreading muck, peat digging, grinding corn, dairy duties cooking or general housework. However, higher status occupations are recorded, such as goldsmith or embroiderer. Some female slaves were used as sex workers, although later laws tried to protect female slaves from sexual abuse. There is a record of the sister of the Danish King Cnut selling girls from England to Denmark. Cnut himself passed a law that a man would forfeit a female slave he committed adultery with, and Christian Penitential's such as Theodore's ordered that a master must fast for a year and free a slave woman that he had got pregnant.


The Christian exhortation to free slaves must have been controversial, if not hypocritical, since some clergy employed slaves on their estates, and monasteries often depended upon them. However, Bede records in Historia Ecclesiastica that Bishop Wilfred freed 250 slaves at land he was given at Selsey in the 7th century. There was an agreement at the Synod of Chelsea in 816 that one slave would be freed by each bishop when one of their fellow bishops died. The churchman Wulfstan condemns the practice of Anglo Saxons selling their countrymen abroad to Pagans in his Sermo ad Lupi (c.1014 AD) and blames the rule of the foreign king (Cnut) on God's displeasure at the practice. He and other bishops urged that slaves be allowed Sundays off to pursue their own activities, and be allowed to observe fasts, and that they should be beaten if they did not observe them (since they were unlikely to have money to pay a fine like their masters.)

Giving up one's slaves (sometimes known as manumission) may have been hard to contemplate: who else was going to plough the fields, cook, or herd the pigs, whist the landowner got on with higher status tasks like weaving, trading or warfare? Inevitably, some Anglo Saxons converted to Christianity made provision in their wills for freeing their slaves when they died, so that they could continue to use them in the meantime. To give a slave their freedom involved taking them to a church and handing them over to the priest, who then led them around the altar 3 times and said some words. There are references to slaves being freed at crossroads, which probably reflects the Germanic practices (formulated in a Lombard law) which includes giving the slave an arrow and a whip and letting them decide which one of the roads to take.

Other sources of slavery

There were a few other ways that people may end up as slaves, other than as prisoners of war: the Old English term wite þeow refers to penal enslavement i.e. a punishment of a court for crime. Some families who had become bankrupt may sell their children, or even themselves to ensure survival, and in some cases they were allowed to earn money to redeem themselves, and repay their price or debt. Such slaves were termed nidþeowas.

One source quotes the price of slaves as 306 grams of silver (male) and 204 grams (female). Those prices are the equivalent today of approximately £3950 & £2630. How that would compare with engaging a paid servant and keeping them in food and accommodation over the same period I do not know. Another 10th century source (the agreement between Anglo Saxons and the Celtic Dunsæte tribe) puts the price of a slave at £1 of silver, compared to £1.50 of silver for a horse, as a comparison. However, some manumissions indicate a half pound in weight of silver as the going rate for a slave's freedom.

Viking Slave Trade

The term that Vikings used for slavery was generally ánauð, and a slave was referred to as a þral or thrall. One could be termed a fostne, which indicated that you were a hereditary fostered slave. Bond servants (bondi) could pay off their owner if they could raise enough money. The image of a slave was one who had short cropped hair and an iron neck collar. After Christianisation a female slave was not allowed to wear a kerchief over her hair, which was a privilege reserved for her mistress.

Dublin was to become the centre for the slave trade for the Vikings in Ireland, with Bristol being an important exit port even then, well before the African slave trade centuries later. They probably also used Jorvik (York) and London as trading centres.

One could be born into slavery, although the Vikings had a rule about this: a child born to a free Viking and a slave woman was born free and classed as Norse (so long as his father admitted paternity) but children of a male Viking slave were destined to remain slaves. A slave injured in his master's service was entitled to medical care. A man could kill his own slave, and if another person did it they only had to make financial restitution. Vikings themselves sometimes became slaves of the Englisc: Edward the Elder brought back Viking slaves with his West Saxon & Mercian army.

A slave wishing to buy their freedom had to make two payments of silver. The second was at a ceremony called the frelsis oel (= free neck ale.) Ale was brewed containing 3 measures, making it as strong as 14% alcohol, and a sheep was slaughtered and eaten. This was sometimes termed logleiddr, meaning 'inducted into law', since a slave had no legal status. Once free the ex-slave (leysingi) must not bring law suits against his master or show disrespect. His former master still had a duty of care towards him if he fell upon hard times. The wergild (level of legal damages) for a freed slave was less than that of a free born man, and equivalent approximately to the price of a domestic animal.

There is the description by the Arab Ibn Fadlan of the slave girl ritually killed to accompany her dead master in his burning boat burial. This appears to have been a custom of Swedish Rus tribe traders operating on the River Volga, and does not seem to have been reported elsewhere.

Norman Slavery

Whilst living in Normandy, France, the Normans (of Scandinavian descent) had slaves, brought mainly through the port of Rouen. After their conquest of England in 1066, there was a four pence tax per slave, payable to the king, but slavery was officially outlawed in England in 1102. After that the trade still continued elsewhere. In many ways the post Norman conquest serfs were unofficial slaves - theoretically free but tied to one feudal overlord and piece of land, and restricted from travel.

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